Candles Always Cry

And Other Stories

Month: May, 2011


High On Poetry

I’m beginning to see the power of poetry – the power of saying truth in a way that can’t be quantified or argued, but suddenly laid bare, and so exposed, that it supersedes the chatter of opposing voices.

I’m partial to any art form, or artist, that can give me a taste of certainty – a true luxury.

Recently, I’ve encountered the poetry of Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra, a 12th century Hebrew scholar, philosopher and poet. He lived in Spain during what’s known as the Spanish Golden Age, a time when the Jewish community flourished in art and intellect, alongside the ruling Moorish or Arab culture.

To me, his poems have a double power. They’re an affirmation that the fusion of art and religion is not just possible, but sacred. And they give voice to themes – soul over body, spirit over matter – that are deeply rooted within me but thoroughly unpopular in the world I reside in.

When I Hunger To Praise Thee

When I hunger to praise Thee, I’m sated;

When to worship I thirst, I am drunk.

Then my heart is secure, when I fear Thee

When in terror and awe I am sunk.

When I bow to Thee low, I am lifted;

When I fall in Thy presence, I rise.

I am free when I serve, for Thy name’s sake,

My oppressors who Thy name despise.

All suffering is sweet to my heart,

When I know that My God Thou art.

Translated by Meyer Waxman

In place of God

When I presented this to my class, I isolated the word [God] and wrote [insert something I believe to be greater than life here]. In place of God. I may have marginalized God right there, but it was an attempt to communicate words of Rabbi Ibn Ezra as a universal message. Partly because I wanted somehow to share my appreciation of his poem with a group of people for whom the connotation of the word ‘Thee’ is long and tired.

God can be the universe, the sense of something greater. To me God is a duty, a responsibility, a purpose actually. If you believe in any of these – that there’s some accountability, to grandchildren, to the universe, to the human race – it’s the same message. It’s the idea that there is something outside of you, probably greater than you, and it’s not an opt-in connection.

I have no argument for it. No way of knowing that we are not simply mistakes, born to live and die as prisoners of our own selves, observers of the world around us. Rabbi Ibn Ezra affirms my belief in it.


Rabbi Ben* Ezra made an appearance as the title of a 19th century poem by Robert Browning. The poem is best known for its opening lines:

Grow old along with me!

For the best is yet to be

It’s a love poem but its theme is a tribute to the ideas of Rabbi Ben Ezra. The message is a sort of anti “Carpe Diem”, a look back at the folly and transience of youth, and a call to recognize that there is more to life than can be experienced in a fleeting moment. An excerpt:

Ay, note that Potter’s wheel,

That metaphor! and feel

Why time spins fast, why passive lies our clay,–

Thou, to whom fools propound,

When the wine makes its round,

“Since life fleets, all is change; the Past gone, seize to-day!”

Fool! All that is, at all,

Lasts ever, past recall;

Earth changes, but thy soul and God stand sure:

What entered into thee,

That was, is, and shall be:

Time’s wheel runs back or stops: Potter and clay endure.

You can see the whole slideshow here.


Addicted to Hope

Hope is the thing with feathers
Which tickles you each morning
And tricks you to begin a day, every day
Grey and heavy with a view
Of a shattered landscape. Desolate
Black flowers growing over city ruins

Somewhere in the charred past
Black flowers grow on yellow stems
Sickly with the kiss of tomorrow
The echoes of their ghosts are
Only in the rising gray cloud. Hovering
Smelling of ash and a little bit of death

Just to pick one flower,
To treasure it in a vase of water
A reminder of what shouldn’t be
To hold it close, deep in the night
When all the lies you’ve told
Cannot desist from burying you

To shred it, tear it petal by petal
Crumble it into powder
And mix it with salt-water
Open your palm and a gray cloud rises
Smelling of ash. Falling
And the charred promises of hope

Now the only thing to hold when you sleep
Is the wide open light 0f the moon
And the next morning
The wings of hope will wake you
To visit the black flowers. Growing
In the dead again city

It’s a Small World

In the toddler play area at Ceaserland there is an oversized red funnel, with an ominous looking black hole at the center. You drop a penny into the side of the bowl and it rolls around in a great lazy circle, then goes around again, and one more time, spiraling faster and faster, until it disappears into the waiting black yawn.

The image of the spiraling penny comes to mind when I read a tech article about an exciting new technology that can recommend books, or music, or friends, or places to visit based on information you’ve input previously. Twitter’s ‘Who to follow’, Facebook ads, Pandora’s algorithm. You’ve read that so you might want to read this. You ‘liked’ this article so you’re probably interested in skiing and therefore want to buy a ski board.

The architects of these technologies claim they are expanding worlds, ushering people towards doors they might never have noticed otherwise. Kind of them, I concede, but then I see the penny and the way its world keeps shrinking as it moves around the red mouth.

Imagine: You are sixteen and your entire life is governed by online interaction. You read books online, you play sports on a Wii, you eat at places recommended by Yelp, and listen to music liked by your friends on Facebook. At sixteen you like The Black Eyed Peas. At seventeen you like bands that were recommended to you because you liked the Black Eyed Peas. At eighteen you like bands that were recommended to you because you checked in at a concert of a band that was suggested to you because you liked the Black Eyed Peas. At nineteen you like a band… When you’re fifty, you’re still listening to music because at sixteen your friend liked the Black Eyed Peas.

More ominously, all the links in the Black Eyed Peas’ evolution that had been so kindly suggested to you were not the product of survival of the best, but intelligently designed by the best minds in marketing. At fifty, you’re listening to music that a genius marketing intern decreed you would thirty years earlier.

The real world also has a way of getting bigger and smaller at the same time. Smaller as you mature and realize your own limitations; bigger as you realize that the world that you do have is endlessly full of new discoveries. In the digital world, unless you feed it more information from its analog counterpart, your world will keep getting smaller.

Unless the bottom of the big red funnel at Ceaserland is really a wormhole. And my penny is out there in an alternate universe.